Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Adults See Smoke

Sometime, I think when I was about 8 or 9, I must have thought that adults knew everything. You could, of course stump them, if you tried, but somehow they just seemed to know a lot of stuff. Family, uncles (uncles were particularly gifted), older cousins, and teachers, all seemed to be full of answers which satisfied my curiosity. At the big pool next door to our house, on the days we were allowed to visit, I can remember my uncle Barney and his 3 war time pals playing tennis on the adjacent court. They had all served in the Army Air Corps in England in WW2 and came back with the absolute best imitations of mid-upper class British accents. Through the vine covered chicken wire separating court and pool, we would hear the thwacks of a tennis ball, then a period of brief silence, followed by a bit of gentlemanly cussing (always under breath), and then one or the other of them, in best Wimbletonian, “fohhhtee, thuhhhtee.” There were probably a few too many pip pips, but somehow there they were, the ‘older folks’ who had travelled the world, and who were, in the mid 1950s, all of about 34 years old. Thirty four now seems impossibly young and immature (unless you started Google), and the speed with which it has transpired is just frightening. We tended to know our place as kids, with somewhat strict delineations drawn. When my Aunt Mollie, who owned the pool slowly strode up the vine draped arbor walk, we kids were shushed out of the pool quickly so as not to cause her any annoyance. In those same years, I suppose Mollie was about the age I am now, and I guess that I am almost at that point where I prefer the children out of the pool when I go in. No, wait, I don’t either. I love watching those kids splash around. Reminds me of why I’m in the damn pool in the first place. “Marco – Polo”. Ok, that WILL get you thrown out of the pool. But there were clear lines of delineation, never moreso than the day my cousin Nate, who is my age, and I were there with a half dozen younger cousins and a few assorted parents. We were 12 or perhaps 13. Over the rank of trees which lined the pool, in the distance was thin rail of smoke raising. Not a giant raging fire, but something worth noting. My mother said to Nate’s mom “look, there seems to be some smoke on Fardown Avenue.” Marge no doubt agreed, and with that, Nate went running around the toweled green-grassy lawn yelling “The adults see smoke! The adults see smoke!” It was as if even though we may have seen it ourselves, there would be no real validation without an Adult acknowledging it. And over the last fifty years, I have transitioned, slowy I must say, from “the Adults see smoke!” to being one of those adults. I don’t really FEEL like one of the Adults. But unless they lock me up, it seems I have no choice. There will always be that weight of memory.

Compared with Uncle Barn, our accents are perhaps more diverse, (Indian, Korean, Egyptian, Sud Afrikaan, oh the list just goes on and on) but I’m not sure they have the same kind of impact on today’s kids. Jordan grew up attending school with kids from 20 countries, and with sushi, chop sticks, fajitas, and the ability to twirl a pretty good fork of spaghetti by he time she was 8. I was already an adult when I finally was introduced to those ‘international’ touches. And today, this week, I have seen how the mere addition of technology does little to really advance life unless it is used right. On the Clinton campaign, every staffer has a Blackberry. All the Advance staff, all the setter-uppers for the events, are never more than a thumb-spin away from a dozen more emails. And it is a pity. No one takes any responsibility anymore, for anything. Because you CAN run it up the chain of command, you do, and you end up making no real decisions locally (except that the press room needs to be near the urinals) and just relying on some presumed distant power to know what’s best for a situation right in front of your eyes. Blackberrys do not replace thoughtful judgment. In the days before cell phones and Blackberrys, you had either a pay phone (iffy) or no phone: that is, you had your own brain, and the will to use it. That is what has gone out of life today. Men and women walk onto an elevator, look around, and see no one they know, and as a social crutch grab their Blackberry and start to finger it the way Egyptian men do prayer beads in a Cairo cafe. I’ll admit that the lousy LG phone I have with Verizon and claims to do email is a bad imitation of a Blackberry. Mine needs sometimes two or three minutes (you KNOW how long that is!) just to pluck the first message off the server. Yet today, for the first time, it did actually G(PS)uide me to Fedex when I was lost, so I guess I can’t trash it too much.

But for the parts of our lives not touched by typing or tapping, there remain certain questions, challenges. Late last week a pal of ours, a wonderful photographer named Theo Westenberger passed away. She’d been sick for a couple of years, and while the last time I saw her, at the Photo Expo last fall, she’d seemed her usual bubbly and energetic self, it seemed as if she’d beaten it. Sadly not, and now, after a long fight, she is gone. I thought about her a great deal when I heard the news. Because I’m in New York so seldom, I didn’t run into her very often, but each time we met, whether in NY or for dinner in DC, her bright and shining countenance was always aglow. And I suppose that while I knew I would seldom actually be in her company, I was more than pleased just knowing that she was out there, being Theo full time. She existed as this wonderful, creative person. I loved the idea of her living her life. And those few moments when we actually got together, with her sardonic wit and a smile, and I knew I was with Theo again. Theo had one of the great monikers in photography. It seemed to radiate her elegance. It fit her perfectly. I’ll miss Theo, and I’ll really miss the idea of knowing that even if I didn’t have the joy of her personal presence so often in my life, that at least somewhere out there, chasing down a great picture, was that wonderful person we called Theo. We’re just sayin’.... David

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